With no evidence to support their claims, those preaching the end of days rely not on reason or rationality to persuade their followers into believing their claims, but often they rely on charisma and fear to keep their disciples in line. They teach a doctrine that emphasizes obedience and servitude, and enforce a high degree of power-distance between those who lead the organization and those who follow it. Reportedly, most people join a cult after becoming disillusioned with mainstream religion. And curiously, many people renew their fervent belief in the prophecy after it has been debunked. Leon Festinger explained this phenomenon as part of a coping mechanism called cognition dissonance reduction, a form of rationalization. Research shows that most cult leaders are highly intelligent and narcissistic individuals with delusions of grandeur who are highly successful at attracting followers, either by appealing to a divine source of power, and relying on animal magnetism.
More often than not, questioning or criticizing the dogma or claims of the cult leader is disparaged, at best. When individuals do see the light of reason or become disillusioned with the cult leader, they are often prevented from making any attempt to escape. Indeed, escape is seldom possible since physical barriers like walls can keep followers in; and keep outsiders from encroaching. Those who attempt to flee and fail can be become stigmatized in their community, discouraging others from attempting to flee, also. Sadly, dissent and criticism is often what is most needed in order to prevent acts of terror, either perpetrated by the cult leader onto their followers, or perpetrated by the cult followers onto others. The Heaven’s Gate cult is a disturbing example what can happen when cults of cult suicide; in 1997, dozens of people within this cult killed themselves en-masse at the arrival of Haley’s comet in the night sky, believing it was a sign that the world was going to end. The Jonestown massacre in 1978 was another example of mass suicide; Jim Jones, the eponymous leader of the cult in Guyana, called upon his followers to drink Flavor-aid laced with cyanide and barbiturates after a government inspection of his jungle compound turned violent, killing a cameraman, a photographer, a journalist, and a U.S. Congressman leading the investigation.
Combined with a belief that the end is nigh, cults can end up deadly for anyone on the inside or outside who become involved. Destructive cults refer to groups whose members injure or kill other members of their own group or others. A destructive cult is a authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have total control. It also tends to use deception in recruiting new members, especially people are not told up front what the group is, what the group actually believes or what will be expected of them if they become members. The violent tendencies of destructive cults can be classified into two general categories; defensive violence and offensive violence. Defensive violence is utilized by cults to defend a compound that was created specifically to eliminate contact with the mainstream society. Offensive violence, on the other hand, is violence waged outside of the compound against mainstream society. In 1995, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out a sarin gas attack of offensive violence in a Tokyo subway in an attempt to kill the judges presiding on a legal dispute that was anticipated to indict their compatriots. The U.S., the E.U. and other governments of the world have since designated their dangerous religion as a terrorist organization.
Especially when doomsday prophecies fail to come true, some leaders take it upon themselves to incite violent insurrection in a self-fulfilling prophecy. A reform movement that began within the Seventh-day Adventist Church called the Branch Dravidian espoused the belief that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent. When founder Florence Houteff announced that Jesus Christ was coming in a matter of days back in 1959, members sold their possessions and assembled at the Mount Carmel Center ranch. When Jesus didn’t show up, Houteff lost control of the sect. In the years following her fall from grace, the sect split into two competing groups that fought for control over their sect; in an on-going feud with rival George Roden, David Koresh began stockpiling illegal weapons until he and his followers began to attract attention from the ATF. Federal law enforcement agents from the ATF and the FBI raided the Mount Carmel Center ranch in February 1993. In the pursuing 51 days, several federal agents and dozens of cult members died in the conflict along with David Koresh who died in an inferno that broke out in the compound.
Violence is not always the end result for cult leaders and their followers; some cults collapse under the weight of reality. The Democratic Workers Party in California was a political cult led by Marlene Dixon, founded in 1974. The group participated in labor rallies, produced political pamphlets and sponsored campaigns aimed at forwarding socialist causes. By 1986, though Dixon was considering leaving the cult to form a think tank in Washington D.C., her alcoholism and paranoia alienating her followers to the point where members began leaving the organization. When Dixon left the United States to tour Eastern Europe, members assembled to vote her out of power as the General Secretary, and to dissolve the party. More recently, Harold Camping’s cult of personality ended just as inexplicably and without bloodshed. But that doesn’t mean that on one was harmed; the children of parents duped into giving their money to that charlatan were hurt the most. Dragged out of school, uprooted from their lives, and now destitute with their unemployed parents, those children suffered for the mistakes that their parents made. Oftentimes, we forget about the damage that can be done to the children of parents in these cults. The First Amendment seems woefully inadequate to protect us in cases like these when the rights to religion, not to mention children, are abused.